Road testing your sauna in the cold

Sauna: test it in cold weather

It’s been really cold here in Minnesota.  Just like with car batteries, this is the kind of weather to really get to know your wood burning sauna stove in your outdoor sauna.  In normal weather, any old stove with any old type of wood can get any old sauna up to 140 f (60c).   With time and determination, a combination of decaying pine branches smoking along in some home made metal box stove in shoddy insulated sauna room will eventually provide enough BTU’s to offer a sweat and some form of sauna.

A more serious sauna environment

Here in Minnesota, we don’t mess around with heat.   We can’t afford to.  It’s been below zero (-20c).  It’s great sauna weather.  And no matter where you live, you shouldn’t mess around with a lame sauna stove, or bad wood, or a poorly designed sauna.  Doing it right doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money, either.  This is the type of weather where you can tell how good your sauna stove is working, or where there’s a crack in your sauna door and the difference between burning pine and oak.

First things first, your outdoor sauna

I’m a big fan of good basic insulation, and a bigger fan of foil vapor wrap. Batting is cheap.  You can frame with 2×4.  Keep your ceiling at 7′ and if you go with 8′ ceiling, that’s fine, go with 3 benches but keep you cube small.  It is a lot easier to heat a small room than a big room.  This isn’t a suburban game of sheet rock palace, square foot fever.  This is an example of less being more.

Second, know your wood

If you’re heating with an electric sauna stove, you can move on.  However, us wood burning purists like to know where our BTU’s come from.  We are like microbrewers and gardeners.  Some of us have beards.  We stutter when we say ‘sustainable’, and some of us mumble words like ‘renewable’ in our sleep.  Up north, I burn birch almost exclusively in my cabin sauna but here in Minneapolis, it’s all across the board.  When I hear a chainsaw, i’m like a dog who hears another dark barking.  I chase after the sound and newly felled wood.  Many are more than happy to part with their tree cuttings.  Stay well clear of Elm (ash bore) but here are my favorites:

  • Maple: dense hardwood.   Harder to light, but burns long and hot and slow.   Great to add to a hot fire.
  • Pine: Burns fast, produces more ash.  Great starting wood.
  • Oak:  My favorite all around burn.  Megga BTU’s, especially well aged red oak.
  • Birch:  Fantastic for saunas, burns hot and bright.  BONUS: birch bark is nature’s gasoline.

Third, get a real sauna stove

I’m biased.  I own three Kuuma wood burning sauna stoves. They are the best sauna stove made.  I can bring my backyard or cabin or mobile sauna from 0 degrees f. (-18c) to 130f (54c) in about half an hour with 3-4 good pieces of wood.  Then, after pulling the hot coals forward, I’ll add another stick or two, and bring the sauna to 150 degrees f. (65c) a few minutes after that.  I can manage the fire, manage the burn rate, and take a 2-3 hour three round sauna at around 170 degress f. (77c).  All that with an armful of well season firewood.  sussusstainable.

How do you road test your sauna?

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